Instant connections, far off the beaten path

Newly hooked up to the Web, teachers and kids in this sheepfarming town work to make the most of a suddenly wider academic world

In the hamlet of Binalong, population 250, sheep are often the nearest neighbors. Nobody worries when kids ride their bikes around the center of town - a cluster of pub, post office, and general store. With only 36 children, the primary school feels like an extended family.

But living in a rural area of the state of New South Wales has its disadvantages. The school qualifies as economically disadvantaged and receives some federal aid. It can afford a field trip to Sydney or Canberra only every other year, despite the fact that the cities are within a few hours' drive.

So getting hooked up to the Internet earlier this year - and instantly having access to the kinds of resources that city kids take for granted - was no small thing.

Up to one-third of Australian children live in rural or remote settings - areas that have seen a persistent academic achievement gap when compared with more-urban schools.

Hopes are high that computer technology can help rural schools narrow that chasm. But in addition to playing catch-up, some of these small-town schools have the flexibility and leadership to be innovators - reshaping teaching methods to best tap technology's potential.

"There's nothing intrinsically valuable about the Internet or computers ... but what makes them valuable is how they are taken up by teachers," says Debra Hayes, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney. That's why efforts are under way across Australia to boost training and technical support.

"All schools are undergoing a battle of change at the moment," says David Nosworthy, principal of the Binalong Public School. With a master's degree combining computer science and education, Mr. Nosworthy has been keen to integrate new technology into his classrooms.

Through a combination of government funding and community decisions to make technology a priority, the school has 1 computer for every 5 students (compared with a statewide goal of 1 to 11). Nosworthy has also helped other schools get wired, build Web pages, and make the most of the new technologies.

A tradition of long-distance schooling

These initiatives are especially important in rural and remote areas. Concerns about access to quality education there are strong enough to have prompted an inquiry by the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. In the report, issued last March, students said they didn't have a wide enough range of subjects to study. And teachers complained that the lack of technical support translates into slow connections to the Internet or long delays when systems need repair.

In 1998, 67 percent of urban students finished high school, compared with 63 percent of rural students and 54 percent of remote. Among other things, the report recommends that school systems review availability of videoconferencing and other interactive technologies and that regional education offices provide IT support.

Australia has long tapped communications technology for "distance education." In 1951, the first School of the Air started offering classes over two-way radios to kids on outback cattle stations. While the radio is still the primary source of these classes, it's slowly giving way to online courses and satellite videoconferencing.

The vast majority of nonurban children, though, do get to see teachers face to face. But because their schools often aren't big enough to have more than two teachers, some of their needs fall under the distance-education umbrella.

In New South Wales, for instance, a group of consultants come together periodically at the distance-education headquarters near Sydney to discuss problems and "best practices" in the small rural schools in their regions.

Through this Country Area Program (CAP), teachers get help with everything from joining online discussion groups with colleagues to overseeing students' work on Web-based learning modules.

The "Maths on the Net" project, for instance, teams up rural students from all over the state to work together solving math problems. "We're trying to encourage teachers to look at developing critical-thinking skills with their students - to get kids to be challenged by gathering and analyzing information," explains Liz Sweeney, a CAP consultant.

Another online lesson focused on Antarctica. Instead of simply copying information from the Internet, students planned a hypothetical expedition.

In addition to connecting with their counterparts in other Australian schools, students now have access to global cyberspace exchanges. Nosworthy hopes his students will soon be able to videoconference with a school in another country.

Whatever the strategy, the point is to "ameliorate the effects of geographic isolation," says CAP manager Graeme Smith.

Kids jump into the deep end

There are no national or statewide requirements as to what computer skills students should master grade by grade. "Desirable outcomes change so rapidly," Nosworthy explains. Two or three years ago, he could barely have imagined the kinds of projects the kids do now.

"I've really put them in the deep end, and it shows what they can do," he adds as he oversees several clusters of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders creating multimedia presentations. (In addition to being principal, he's also one of only two full-time teachers.)

After appealing to Nosworthy to quiet the room, a pair of boys tilt their heads toward a computer and say "space exploration" in sync. They seem at ease as they create these audio labels for their presentation. Just a few weeks earlier, "they didn't want to hear their voices back," Nosworthy says with a proud grin.

Meanwhile, Shane Blair is temporarily stymied in his efforts to research Halley's Comet, because the Internet connection is down. He has a computer at home, he says, but he especially enjoys using the Internet at school because "it's really quick on iMACs. It's fun to use and you can go on there on lunch hours."

The latest Internet research the students are engrossed in is the history of A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, a famous Australian poet who wrote "Waltzing Matilda." The project hits even closer to home because Nosworthy recently learned that in the early 1870s, Paterson attended school in Binalong (pronounced byne-a-long).

In another classroom, the five-, six-, and seven-year-olds share two personal computers under the watchful eye of teacher Lynn Kane. "Every day the computer [is] in use," says Ms. Kane. "I do a lot of mouse-driven games so the kids feel comfortable."

Kane finds ways to slip technology into other activities, too. "The children yesterday were doing constructions on the floor, and they wanted to show everyone, so I got the digital camera." The students were thrilled to see their images appear almost instantly on the computer screen.

Rather than learning on computers in a separate lab, Binalong students move easily between desk work and multimedia tasks on the computers a few feet away. "That sort of seamless transition is a fairly good indicator of integration," and of computers being used to enhance learning, says Ms. Hayes of the University of Technology.

The school's new iBook laptop, which can float from room to room through a wireless Internet connection, makes that transition even more seamless.

Parents in Binalong are happy to have a school that's keeping up to date with technology. Robyn Sykes, who has two sons at the school, says services in Binalong and other small towns are being cut back, "so the computer is very handy." To run the family farm, she and her husband use the Internet for accessing more-reliable weather reports, generated outside of Australia. But the school offers her sons much more sophisticated software than they have at home.

On course - on the Web

There's a similar enthusiasm for computers and the Internet in Galong, the next town over, where Nosworthy used to be principal. The K-6 school has only nine students this year, and just as many computers. While Judith Hall, the principal and main teacher, works with the younger children on a noncomputer lesson, two older students follow a CD-ROM tutorial about government in the next room.

"The children are very confident with technology and very supportive of each other," Ms. Hall says.

The school's use of computers reassures parents about the quality of the education there, she adds. "Some people have the impression that rural schools don't give a globally competitive education. I think that's a misconception."

The advantage of being in a small town like Galong is that the students aren't the only ones keeping up with technology. Hall is pleased to be able to form good relationships with parents as they visit the school to use everything from laminators to the Internet.

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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